Women Who Ruled: Empress Wu 1/5

18th century posthumous portrait of Empress Wu

Content warning for forced hair removal in this passage

Today I’d like to start a new series on historical women rulers from around the world. Patriarchy and patrilineal inheritance of power have been common in most cultures throughout human history. Women who ruled did so as queens, consorts, regents, and mistresses and they had to fight twice as hard to maintain their power once it was won. 

Wu was born to a common yet wealthy family, her father a minor general. Her original name is lost to history, except her patrynym Wu which she retained her whole life. Her father broke with traditional gender norms and encouraged child Wu to read and study. The year of her birth is believed to be 624 and she came to China’s imperial palace in 636 CE as a concubine. Only the most beautiful young women (or girls) were selected as concubines. Young Wu was at the fifth rank of the hierarchy of palace women, with the duties of a chamber maid. 28 other consorts outranked her. 

Before we proceed farther, we should go over a few relevant terms. An empress consort is the wife of a reigning emperor. An empress dowager is the widow of an emperor. An empress mother is an empress dowager as well as the mother of the reigning emperor. An empress regent is an empress mother who rules the empire on behalf of her child emperor. An empress regnant rules an empire in her own right. 

Over the course of her life, common born Wu would hold each of these titles. She is the only woman in 4,000 years of Chinese history to do so. Throughout the course of this mini bio I will resort to phrases like “it is believed” and “some scholars say” because scandalous rumors follow female rulers during their reign and after. Imperial history has not looked kindly on usurpers or women. 

Wu came to the palace as a concubine of the emperor Taizong. It was traditional for the childless concubines of a deceased emperor to have their heads shaved and be sent to live out their days in a nunnery, unspoiled by other men out of respect for the fallen emporer. Yet when Taizong died, Wu managed to escape this fate and returned to the palace as one of his son Gaozong’s wives. Some speculate Wu seduced Gaozong in advance of his father’s death to achieve this. 

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